In the middle of the Kansas–Nebraska crisis, the United states now had a Cuba crisis. Riding a wave of outrage over the seizure of the Black Warrior on a legal technicality, but really as a show of strength by the new Spanish governor, the Pierce administration threatened war. If Madrid would not give Washington satisfaction, Pierce proposed to take it. He had his attorney-general, Cuba annexation fan Caleb Cushing, leaning on him to make a war of it. He had the Congress up in arms.
Or rather, Franklin Pierce had half the Congress up in arms about the Black Warrior, more or less. The same people alarmed by the Africanization of Cuba under the Marqués de la Pezuela now cried out for war, or at the very least giving filibusters like John A. Quitman a free hand. The men inflamed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, antislavery northerners, found they had not much more outrage in them over the seizure of the ship than their proslavery opposites had over the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Had the Pierce administration not brought both crises on itself, one could feel some sympathy. But Pierce’s policy, whether he chose it himself or had it selected by Jefferson Davis and Caleb Cushing in private, did a great deal to bring things to this point at home and in Cuba.
What outrage antislavery interests had about the Black Warrior affair revolved around the administration’s warlike attitude on the whole matter. On March 16, 1854, Joshua Giddings, signatory to the Appeal of the Independent Democrats despite being a Whig turned Free Soiler, rose in the House to voice his objections. He began with the obvious: the Spanish had every right to seize the ship for her violation of their revenue laws. The manifest declared only her ballast, but “she had four or five hundred bales of cotton on board.”
I would call the attention of the House and the country to the fact that it is precisely teh same case in all its bearings which was pursued by our authorities in regard to the British steamers of the Cunard line. They have, on more than one occasion, been seized for having goods on board in violation of our revenue laws. One was seized in New York precisely as the Black Warrior was seized. In Boston, since we convened here, another instance occurred. They were seized, and those goods not mentioned in the manifest were confiscated. No voice has come from Old England in remonstrance. She has not called on her Parliament to prepare for war. She expects her citizens hwo land in our ports to conform to the laws and to the revenue system which we have established.
Pierce, for all his crying about how extraordinary and outrageous he found the seizure, had revenue officers under his supervision that did the same thing. Furthermore, Giddings pointed out that far from picking just on American ships, the Cuban authorities had treated British ships under the same system. He had it from the American consul at Havana, who learned the fact from his British counterpart and passed it on in the documents Pierce himself supplied to the House. If the vessels of other nations got seized for violations, why not American vessels also?
All of this had to smell a bit like Stephen Douglas’ line about how the nation repealed the Missouri Compromise back in 1850, to universal acclaim that no one noticed at the time.